Wednesday 23 May 2018

Shannon Matthews: The abductor, the stepfather and a community still revelling in the attention

Karen Matthews, her daughter Shannon and Craig Meehan
Karen Matthews, her daughter Shannon and Craig Meehan

Eleanor Steafel

It was a twisted tale that had a nation gripped. A mother who faked her own child’s disappearance for a cash reward. A council estate in the north of England whose residents seemed to revel in the media attention. Cries that the kidnap plot to claim a £50,000 (€58,755) ransom was a direct result of Welfare Britain.

And, in the midst of it all, a nine-year-old girl left tied up for 24 days by people who should have been protecting her.

The 2008 abduction of Shannon Matthews shocked the country. Nine years on, a BBC dramatisation starring Sheridan Smith has brought all of those feelings back.

When the concluding part of The Moorside airs tonight, the story of how a West Yorkshire community helped to find its missing kidnap victim will certainly make for uncomfortable viewing, as well it might. But it won’t necessarily tell the full story.

Uncomfortable questions: Karen Matthews with her daughter’s favourite teddy during an appeal for her safe return in 2008
Uncomfortable questions: Karen Matthews with her daughter’s favourite teddy during an appeal for her safe return in 2008

In the drama, Shannon’s mother Karen Matthews (played by Gemma Whelan) and the band of women from the Dewsbury estate who rallied around her are at the centre of the retelling. In many ways, this seems only right, given that it is Matthews and her friend Julie Bushby (the woman who led the community search for Shannon, who is played by Smith) who have stuck firmest in the collective memory.

But what the series fails to fully acknowledge is the role of the men in Shannon’s life. Whether it’s Shannon’s stepfather Craig Meehan, largely shown silently playing computer games while the women talk, or her father Leon Rose, who is shown skulking about the streets of the estate, the men in this drama are left lurking in the shadows – just as they had always been in the reporting of the story.

In tonight’s episode, we will be given the briefest glimpse of Michael Donovan, the uncle of Karen Matthews’ boyfriend who was complicit in Shannon’s abduction, conspiring to keep her tied up in his house and planning to split the reward.

While Matthews – who had seven children by five different men and was billed as “Britain’s Most Hated Mum” – is still widely written about today, and has been exposed several times since her release from prison in 2012, Donovan has been mostly written off as a common creep and forgotten about.

Until this week, little was known of what had become of Donovan, now 48. Unlike his nephew Craig Meehan – who also went to prison after the abduction, serving a short spell when police found child pornography on his computer – he had succeeded in keeping relatively under the radar.

Following Donovan’s release in 2012, halfway through his eight-year sentence, he was arrested again – this time for “poor behaviour” after he was seen acting suspiciously, sitting on a bench in a Leeds marketplace for six hours a day – and was returned to prison for a brief period. But though Meehan, now 30, has been unmasked several times since coming out of jail – once after he was found living 100 yards from a primary school – nothing is known about where his uncle has been since his release.

But this week it was revealed that the deluded Donovan had written to a female penpal from behind bars, claiming that if people knew the full story, they “would understand” why he did what he did.

Pictures taken in September 2012, following his release from HMP Leeds, have also emerged of the kidnapper outside a coffee shop watching children playing nearby. In letters passed to the Sunday Mirror, Donovan complains to a woman known only as Sarah about life behind bars as he awaited trial. He wrote: “I am trying to cope in prison, but other things are getting me down. I’m on a safe wing. I only get out once a day.”

Sheridan Smith said she forged a friendship with Julie Bushby, who she depicts in BBC1 drama The Moorside
Sheridan Smith said she forged a friendship with Julie Bushby, who she depicts in BBC1 drama The Moorside

Yet he cared little about his own “prisoner”, whom he kept captive for more than three weeks. Whenever he left the house, he left a set of rules, which included: “You must not go near the windows. You must not make any noise and bang your feet. You must not do anything without me being there.”

Donovan’s cards were marked long before his conviction for Shannon’s abduction. Social workers had been alerted after teachers at his daughters’ school discovered love letters from him in one of the girls’ lunchboxes. His daughters were taken into care after allegations of him making them watch him have sex with prostitutes. And 15 months before Shannon’s kidnap, Donovan – who is said to have had learning difficulties – was accused of abducting one of his daughters after picking her up from school in breach of a court order.

The BBC drama has thrown the town of Dewsbury back into the public eye. Unscrupulous locals on the Moorside estate have reportedly been cashing in on the sudden renewed interest, charging £15 (€17.63) for a tour of “Shannon Matthews hotspots”, including the family home and the flat where a schoolgirl was kept drugged in the base of a divan bed.

One can only hope that Shannon, who would be 18 by now, is now living far away, safe under a different name, and shielded from it all by a someone who cares for her more than her mother and her cohorts ever did.

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